July 3, 2017

Where Death and Division Need Not Rule

“The missionary task itself was undertaken, not only by Paul and others whose names are known […] but also by countless and nameless Christians who went from place to place taking with them their faith and their witness. Some of these, like Paul, traveled as missionaries, impelled by their faith. But mostly these nameless Christians were merchants, slaves, and others who traveled for various reasons, but whose travel provided the opportunity for the expansion of the Christian message.”
– Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity

What if Paul was not to be read so much as the exemplary hero of the New Testament but as the ordinary archetype. Could it be the Paul is no more than an example to us of what was normative of a follower of Jesus in post-Ascension first century Palestine?

The book of Acts begins with a risen Jesus commissioning his friends to share with others what they had experienced in and through him. They would start at home and then witness to Jesus' message throughout the world. We then read of the Spirit descending upon the disciples and then they declare God's goodness in the many mother tongues of those gathered in Jerusalem from around the known world. The remainder of Luke's story of the apostles displays what happens when Jesus' covenantal mandate unfolds.

For the earliest of Christians, the faith of our tradition was not passed down through the canon of Scripture but through the collection of stories passed from person to person, generation to generation. By the dawn of the second century, the influence of the Church upon the known world was unmistakable but it remained strange as well. The stories told in the early church were of a boundary-breaking God. A God that crossed the lines of distinction between individuals and groups of individuals. God had done so out of love, in order to reconcile with all people, with all of creation. These stories shaped two things about the Christian community that are important to point out: identity and destiny.

The reason why early Christians were strange to those around them was the trans-ethnic nature of their communities. Their collective identity was wrapped up in something other than race, gender or socio-economic status. This identity did not ignore or downplay who they were as individuals but celebrated who they were together in Christ. This is to say that a primary aspect of an early Christian's identity was of an evangelistic nature. It cannot be overstated how odd this was in first and second century Palestine. Other spiritual communities did not do this. The only other social construct that bound people together across such differences was Rome. Empire.

The early church's boundary-crossing efforts were not pursued in the same way as Rome. As Willie James Jennings writes, Rome was attempting to "shape the world in its own image." From their Jewish roots, the early Christians knew that the people of the world had already been made in the image of God, they knew that God's presence was out ahead of them, to be found wherever the Spirit might lead them. Therefore, early Christians told stories that announced, reminded and demonstrated to all that would hear that death and division need not rule their lives any longer. These were tales that not only looked back at the life of Jesus and those of his apostles but spoke of hope as well; painting a picture of the future other than what they may have imagined already.

I don't mean to make the work of these early missionaries sound too simplistic or easy. Whether we are reading the post-Pentecost encounters of Peter or those of Paul in the New Testament, we can easily see the significant challenge they faced when going about this Spirit-led extension. Death and division rule over the hearts of humanity and we will often fight hard to keep these boundaries in place.

The message of the early Christians was a spiritual message but it was a spiritual message that had political and economic ramifications. You could not be Christian and not share God's good news with those beyond your tribe, your camp. This upset the balance of power and the expectations of the marketplace. It would land them in trouble time and again. The boundary-crossing communities that took shape cared for each other and those around them as if they were family. The adopted rhythms and traditions that reminded them of where they came from, who they were in Christ and where the Spirit was leading them. Always, they were held by a conviction that the Spirit was leading them towards "the uttermost part of the earth."

Rooted this identity and destiny, it could be said that these communities had three distinct "rhythms." They had a spiritual rhythm of prayer, studying their Scriptures and the teachings of the apostles and worship. They had a relational rhythm of regularly gathering to share meals and care for each other. They had a missional rhythm of extending their communal experience to those outside of their circles and continually sharing the message of Jesus' kingdom with others.

The announcement and embodiment of this other kingdom is what would continually disrupt the social norms of the world around these Christian communities. That is, until empire would decide that the only way to deal with the Church was to acknowledge it and tempt it with power. By the fourth century empire could discern no other option. It is these three rhythms mentioned above that we will look for as we seek out missional communities following Constantine's rise.

Until then, some reading:
Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings
Destroyer of the Gods by Larry Hurtado
Radical Faith by John Driver

Also in this series on "the meaning of missional":
The Domesticated And The Disappeared
Missional Roots in Monastic Movements
Where Death And Division Need Not Rule
This Book Enacts God's Dream
Missional Trajectory
Reading Scripture With The Other In Mind
Why Is 'Missional' So Important?
Missional Hermenuetic
Further Background
Where Do I Begin?